Sunday, 8 February 2009
Glamour at the Playhouse
I don't know if it was the snow, the credit crunch or the need for a preview audience, but a message reached me on Facebook offering £5 tickets for previews of Glamour, the new play by Stephen Lowe.
These days Stephen Lowe is one of Nottingham's literary celebrities. His Brian Clough play, Old Big 'Ead in the Spirit of the Man, was one of the most hilarious and joyful productions I've ever attended. I'll never forget the Nottingham Forest and Derby fans thronging the theatre for the first preview nor the ecstatic response I - and the whole audience - gave to the stage Clough's rendition of "My Way" in which he was accompanied by roller-skating angels. Only at the theatre or sports ground is such sublime collective enthusiasm possible.
Glamour takes an episode from Stephen Lowe's Nottingham youth as its starting point. The schoolboy Lowe was working at a small Nottingham cinema, the Moulin Rouge, where his tasks included booking foreign films, which were cheaper than new releases. "The continent" - especially Paris - came to embody the idea of romance, sex and glamour The young Stephen Lowe, represented by Jimmy Potter (not Porter) in the play, decided on a career as a film-maker. Undeterred by his reliance on a handheld 8mm camera, he settled on his first project: a short blue movie (literally blue since he dyed the film in the bath).
This is the starting point of the play, which takes place behind the screen at the now-lost Moulin Rouge. Six actors are on stage. There's the young would-be film-maker and his girlfriend, who are torn between his desire for art, sexual experience and Lawrentian ideals and her Catholic upbringing (coupled with embarrassment about her small breasts). There's the chirpy, comic cinema-owner who has fled to Nottingham from London and his alluring, uneasy wife. There's the would-be singer who offers a different kind of glamour - he once appeared on Top of the Pops. And there's a quiet Irishman, working on a building site while writing poetry and talking of Joycean epiphanies. Off-stage - in the streets and the auditorium of the cinema we never see - are guests invited to the premiere of young Jimmy's film and a group of Irish building workers.
The play is a comedy but, as with all good comedies, there's loss at the heart of it. Almost all the characters yearn for a life that's unattainable and dream of being somewhere else, where life is filled with glamour. Only Jimmy has much hope of fulfilling his dreams through the miraculous transformation (in 1966) of university. The rest live through projecting their desires on other people, seeing them as the embodiments of the glamour they desire rather than recognizing them as fully human. The older characters are more seduced by glamour than the young who still have the chance that luck will improve their lives - perhaps their greater chance of luck means the young can afford their forays into realism.
I watched Stephen Lowe and the director, Bill Alexander, in the bar before the play. When it was over, I saw them in the back row of the stalls, with a sheaf of notes. There may be rewrites before the press night on Tuesday or the staging and timing may be changed. There was a little dip in attention for about ten minutes of Act One although the audience was willing the play to succeed. But such things often happen at previews - that's what previews are for. And the cast was brilliant, especially Michael Socha as the young Jimmy Potter and Melissa Simpson as his girlfriend. (They had real Nottingham accents too instead of the usual TV travesty.)
The play as a whole was a delight: lots of laughs but, in the end, real emotion and a sense that the play had raised important questions, as good plays do. And for someone of my generation, there were delightful and embarrassing recollections of the 1960s - before the play began, I realised I could sing along to "Michele - my girl" (even the verse in French) while in the interval I was embarrassed by my familiarity with the Babycham ad. I'll be urging my friends to go.